From John 15:1-8, “. . . I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing . . .”
“So where did you come from?” people always want to ask, right?! “You don’t sound like you are from around here,” my wife and I both get told sometimes. Because our accent faded some as we were growing up, and as we went to college, and as we left Georgia to go to school in Virginia, we have not always sounded like we are from around here . . . but we are . . . if by here you mean the central part of Georgia.
The place where I grew up was called the “Maaaaaaaarrreee” community. The name is simply, “Marie.” But if you are from the “Maaaaarree” community is just like that: “Maaaaaaaaaarree”.
And that place got its name from the little church that was just down the road, a half-mile from the house where I grew up. There were pine trees that had been planted in the land bordering on the back of that church. There was a cemetery across the road. And around that cemetery, there was the land that my father owns, that his father had owned and divided between his three sons (unfortunately the daughters didn’t get a thing). That was the land where my father planted corn, and wheat, peanuts and soybeans. That was the land where he allowed people to shoot dove when the season was in. It was also the land on which he kept hogs. We would run those hogs up a chute and onto a truck and drive them to the market to be sold. On that same piece of land was the house that my father and mother had built, which sits right next to the house where he was raised with his family.
Where was it that you grew up? What was it like there? How did that place nurture you? Even though some of us may have moved around a lot when we were young, where is that place? What is the soil from which you grew like a tender plant?
Occasionally my wife and I return to a place that is relatively close to that land. About thirty minutes away there is a place called Greenbough House of Prayer. It is a retreat center located in Scott, Georgia. The retreat center has a small chapel and a couple of older houses that the owner inherited and renovated in order to create this place. There is a Methodist minister who lives there and gives communion and leads prayer services in the afternoon and evenings. There are walking trails in the back, a small library and kitchen in the main retreat house.
In addition to the Methodist minister who is there, the owner, a woman by the name of Faye Key, is also what they call a spiritual director, sort-of like a spiritual counselor. Whenever we go to Greenbough, we meet with her one-on-one to talk about our spiritual lives, our prayer life, how other things are affecting us and our relationship to God. Then maybe we each go for a walk along the trails on the property and see and hear the birds flying in and out of the brush, feel the cool breeze blowing, knowing that as we walk we are connected and grounded in this place too! We are connected and planted in the soil of the love of God for us and for everyone. This is a place where we are nourished, where we are reminded of God’s love and care for us.
We are all like plants that grow. We have all been planted somewhere; we all have our roots in some soil in some place. But . . . in addition to that planting in whatever are the sacred places in our lives, we are rooted, we have life because of our connection to God and the love of God. Maybe your church is a part of that. I hope that it is.
This passage from John in addition to 1 John 4:7-21 remind us of God’s love for us and that we exist because of that love. Apart from that love we have nothing; we are nothing. Without that fertile soil and the ways in which our roots are nourished by that soil, we have nothing; we are nothing.
Each of us is that vine that Jesus talks about. Each of us has been pruned at times. And there have been times where we have been dried up and have not yielded fruit. And maybe you have realized at those times that part of why you struggled, part of why you felt dried-up is that your roots were not in this soil. There are times when we get so busy in our lives, running here and there, sometimes even doing what we believe to be God’s work, there are times when we are so busy that we lose that connection to God.
Jesus is telling the disciples, trying to encourage them, to make sure that they are connected to God . . . the language here is “abiding”. It is that sense that we have our being in God, our life is God’s life. As we continue to move through this Easter season, we know that it will only be a few more weeks before the Ascension, before the time when Jesus goes to be with the Father and the disciples will be left behind. Yes, the Holy Spirit will come on Pentecost, but this is part of why Jesus is emphasizing this abiding with God, this understanding of God’s love for you. And Jesus is emphasizing this to the disciples in large part because in addition to being connected to God, they must be connected with each other.
God’s love for us is also our love for each other, our being together in worship, in our churches, on that soil. You know that living in community is not easy; it is a challenge. Love is a challenge. And in the letter from John that we read this morning, John uses strong language to say that we do not understand God’s love for us if we do not love each other, if we do not enter into deep, lasting, loving, trying, changing, challenging relationships with each other.
In our congregations, we are also like the vines connected to God. We will be pruned at times; we may have felt dried up and useless at times too! We also know that without our connection to God, without abiding in God and knowing God’s love for this place, apart from God, we can do nothing. It may look like we are doing something, but we are not.